Syria Speeding Up
Three weeks ago I wrote that Syria was not about to experience a popular revolution. Although I’m no longer sure of anything after the events in Tunisia and Egypt (and Libya, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen and Bahrain) – and although it’s made me unpopular in certain quarters – I’m sticking to my original judgement. No revolution in Syria just yet.
Until a month ago, I would have have agreed with Joshua Landis (quoted here) that many, perhaps a comfortable majority of Syrians were not particularly interested in ‘democracy.’ Before either I or Landis is accused of orientalism, let me say that human and civil rights are not identical with democracy. Any Syrian who knows he’s alive wants his (or her) human and civil rights respected, but many fear that ‘democracy’ would lead to sectarian fragmentation. This is an entirely logical fear: the ‘democracies’ to the west and east of Syria – Lebanon and Iraq – are strife-torn sectarian democracies. Sectarian identification remains a problem in Syria. A freedom-loving Alawi friend of mine was put off the failed ‘day of rage’ facebook group because he found so many anti-Alawi comments posted there. Other Syrians were put off when they realised that many of the posts came from Hariri groups in Lebanon.
Many Syrians fear that ‘destabilisation’ wouldn’t bring democracy anyway. When Hafez al-Asad died, most Syrians had contradictory feelings about Bashaar’s succession: on the one hand, the notion of a hereditary presidency was humiliating and absurd; on the other, young Bashaar seemed a better option than tank battles between aspiring generals.
Although early hopes of sudden liberalisation were dashed, Bashaar’s presidency has been reasonably popular. The economy has been growing, but the gap between rich and poor has grown too. Most Syrians struggle to get by, yet are not nearly as poor as those in Egypt’s slums. Foreign policy has not humiliated Syria’s national feelings, as was the case in Egypt.
But if Bashaar and his foreign minister pass the approval of many, his corrupt cousins and generals and secret policemen do not. And here’s the problem. In Egypt and Tunisia the army sided with the people against the regime, or at least the head of the regime. In Syria, the regime’s body is more vicious than its head. In any case, the Syrian army would not side with the people. The upper ranks would have too much to lose, and do not necessarily trust each other. Many of the middle and lower ranks, Alawis and other minorities, would also fear generalised revenge attacks against their communities, or sectarian Sunni rule, if the regime shook.
If it became possible, could a democracy do a better job of foreign policy? Almost definitely, yes – and I say so as someone who respects most of Syria’s foreign policy, certainly when compared to the foreign policies of other Arab regimes. A free civil space would permit committed, intelligent, articulate Syrians to organise against Zionism and imperialism. The West would not find it so easy to ignore a Syria with all its creative energies unleashed. And an economy free of large-scale corruption would give Syria more resources to fuel its battles.
Domestically, democracy could do a whole lot better. Syria is much safer than it has been, but barbarities still occur with prosaic regularity in police stations and prisons across the land. A recent example is the sad case of Tal al-Molouhi.
Syrians are sick of all that. And now they may have a brighter alternative than Iraq or Lebanon to brood upon. Egypt is closer to Syrian hearts than it seems on the map. If a democratic, non-sectarian Egypt reclaims its regional role, profound change in Syria will be a matter of time. They say Syria is fifteen years behind Egypt, but time is speeding up.
So the regime needs to get a move on. Bashaar has said, perhaps with some sincerity, that the difficult environment of his decade in power – wars in Iraq and Lebanon, Israeli attacks, targetting by neo-cons – was the factor which slowed reforms. But with the transformation in Egypt, the region is about to become much more hospitable to Syria. Reform in the new circumstances should be easy.
And also inescapable. Inspired by the larger Arab revolution (Syrians like to be at the forefront of any Arab revolutionary movement), people will increasingly demand to be treated fairly and humanely. That’s what they’re doing in the film above. This spontaneous and unprecedented demonstration in Hareeqa (in the Old City souq area) blew up after police beat a local man (explanation here). The Interior Minister turned up, a sign that the regime is acting with intelligence (when Mubarak went, Syrian TV very adroitly broadcast Jazeera’s live feed).
But more important than the regime response, the film shows the new mood – people demanding respect and dignity. They chant The Syrian People Won’t Be Humiliated. If there are more protests over local human rights issues – and there may well be – people may go on to demonstrate against corruption. If they ensure that their slogans are non-sectarian, and organise protests with people of all backgrounds, then sectarian fears will loosen, and much more becomes possible.